Back in July, I featured a short film called The Tolltaker in The Post. Today we go behind the scenes with the film’s director Steve Janas. This interview will be split into two parts, the first examines the film’s origins and pre-production. The second delves deeper into production and post-production.
The story behind the Tolltaker is one of ambition but also tragedy. At the center of it all is a passionate filmmaker, determined to make a feature film version of this story for himself and as a tribute to the author who inspired it all.
But first, check out the full short film:
PART TWO: THE FILM
Talk about the decision to create a short film before attempting the feature version of The Tolltaker. What are some of the advantages/disadvantages of such an approach? What advice would you give to people considering similar options for their projects?
That’s a biggie. I’m not sure I’m in a position to give advice to others for something I haven’t yet succeeded at myself. I’m certainly not the first person to make a short film with an eye toward finding backing for the feature-length version. It’s an approach that worked for George Lucas and the Cohen Brothers, among others. So maybe it will work for me.
Now, there are people who have made feature-length films for less – considerably less – than what I spent on Tolltaker. However, I just didn’t think that micro-budget approach would work for the story, so I decided to concentrate my resources on creating the best quality snapshot of the overall story that I could manage.
The question was whether to do an actual trailer for the film or a fully realized story that could stand on its own. I decided that, ultimately, making a stand-alone movie would have more impact. People embrace a full story more heartily than just the fragments they’re enticed by in a trailer.
And my goal for the short film is for as many people to see it – and like it – as possible. I want people to fall in love with the story like I did, to root for it as “the little movie that could” (to quote my co-producer Lavinia).
In these days of social media, the way people do that is by watching videos online, posting the link on their Facebook and Twitter accounts, and talking about it in chats. That’s how I’d like to develop a following for Tolltaker. I’d love for people to want to read the screenplay for the feature after seeing the short, and I would like to use the number of viewings on Vimeo and “Likes” on Facebook as proof to potential backers that an audience exists for the feature-length film.
That’s not to say I’m not entering the film into festivals as well. Nothing imparts respectability upon a film like those little film festival laurels you can put on the poster or the website.
The Tolltaker has several distinct styles. What inspired that approach and how did you go about planning each unique look?
Well, for the live-action stuff centered on Bobby’s life in Philadelphia, I guess I wanted to render it mostly in the honey-drenched glow of nostalgia. This is a story being told from the perspective of an adult looking back on his childhood. Like Stand By Me, or Frank Darabont adapting a Stephen King story such as Green Mile.
The animated scenes are broken into two distinct styles. We come across the first after Bobby turns and fires his toy gun at the camera in what we called the James Bond shot (you’ll know it when you see it).
This animation is more playful and “cartoonish” in the Hanna-Barbera sense. This is Bobby at play, a young kid lost in his own imagination. It shouldn’t be surprising that it resembles the cartoons that Bobby no doubt loves watching on TV.
The second style is altogether different: more sinister and creepy, and looks more like the kind of “adult” animation you would expect to see in a Ralph Bakshi film. It should be noted that this animated world is beyond Bobby’s control. It sneaks up on him like a traumatic memory bubbling up out of the unconscious and seizes control of his mind through the force of sheer horror.
The third distinct style can be found in the Vietcong tunnel scenes with Bobby’s dad and his fellow GI Gary. This is grainy and washed out, a nod to the gritty, hyper-realistic style of certain Tony Scott films, for instance. However, thanks to the work of our VFX guy Mike Enright and Sound Designer Rodney Whittenberg, these sequences cross the line altogether from realism to a kind of feverish nightmare world. It wasn’t planned exactly that way, but was instead one of those unexpected syntheses you’re occasionally rewarded with when you take any project from planning to execution.
I guess you can also say there is another style on display when Gary tells his story to Bobby’s family, and Bobby enters a sort of temporary psychosis to block out what Gary is saying. I’ve always been fascinated by surrealism and expressionism, and that’s exactly what this scene is.
The word “surrealism” literally means something that exists “on top of” realism, or realism taken a step upward, beyond the dimensions of reality that we’re familiar with. I like to think that’s what I was attempting with this scene: starting with reality and crossing the line at a certain key moment to something trippy and fantastic.
One director who I think is truly an expert at this approach is the late British director Lindsay Anderson. His movies If… and Oh, What A Lucky Man made a real impact on me, and I would encourage people to seek them out and watch them.
What challenges did you face planning and executing the live action elements vs the animated sequences?
They both had their challenges. Or, rather, the execution had its challenges. I saw the movie very clearly in my head before shooting it, so the imagining part was easy.
The “doing” part was another story entirely. As I said, for the Vietcong tunnel scenes, we built a 60-foot long set out of old pallets in a warehouse. The audacity of that can be credited to my co-producer Lavinia DeCastro. When we were discussing how to do these scenes, she said, “We’re going to have to build it.” And that was that. She can be very determined.
It was actually Dan Buck who oversaw construction of the tunnel. He was an absolutely invaluable motivating force behind this project, who oversaw the logistics of actually getting stuff done. He proved himself to be an absolutely killer Line Producer.
The warehouse itself was an interesting place. Aside from being home to a few businesses, it also provided rehearsal space to some very loud death-metal bands, as well as a location for some rather elaborate S&M parties.
In the movie, when Bobby ventures into the mouth of the Tolltaker tunnel, he winds up in a maze of subterranean passages. These were actually not beneath the streets of Northeast Philly, but Girard College, a private school for underprivileged boys in North Philadelphia. The school’s often been used as a movie location, for films like James Franco’s Annapolis, among others. I remember watching television one time and getting a shock of recognition when I realized the commercial I was watching was shot in the same tunnel where Bobby has his final confrontation with the Tolltaker.
As for the animation, as I said, it was overseen by Lavinia. I storyboarded pretty much the entire film, and handed the storyboards for the animated scenes to her to realize. We chose rotoscoping as the method of animation because it’s based on live-action footage that you shoot before the animation process begins. Since Lavinia was still a student at the time, she felt this was safely within her capacities.
Her “lieutenant,” as it were, was a guy named Jake Hoisington, a highly-regarded fellow student at the Institute, whose participation in the project Lavinia thought of as something of a coup. At one point, we shot a little “behind the scenes” feature with Jake, where he explains the rotoscoping process from one of the animation bays at the school.
What was it like on set? Was it difficult ensuring that the live action would fit with the animation?
This was a pretty ambitious project, with multiple locations. We only had the budget for seven days of shooting, so we had to be pretty organized. Again, much of the credit goes to Dan Buck for that.
It was important for me to make sure I had professionals do the shooting, lighting and sound, and I was willing to pay for it. Fortunately, I found Mike Brand, the Director of Photography, who was about as pro as you can get. He brought along a whole stable of capable professionals to serve as gaffer, sound recorder and such.
The scene in the diner with the waitress at the beginning of the film was shot in a small café in downtown Royersford, Pa. I have to say that the town of Royersford bent over backwards to help us. They even had the police shut down a street so that we could shoot the scene where five-year-old Bobby is walking home with his Paw-Paw.
What wound up being the biggest stressor in terms of getting the thing done was the fact that the lead actor, Cullen Clancey – who plays Bobby – was about to move to Zurich, Switzerland, where his father had gotten a new job. I mean, it was down to the wire – on the last day of shooting, Cullen and his mom had to go home and finish packing afterwards, because they were leaving, literally, the next day.
As for getting the live action to match the animation, that wasn’t too difficult, thanks to the rotoscoping process. Since rotoscoping begins with live-action footage, the animator has a pretty solid base to work from.
Can you elaborate on the animation process?
The process, as I said, is called Rotoscoping, and it dates to 1917. Basically, what it involves is shooting live action and then drawing over top of it. In past eras, what took place was that each frame of movie footage would be projected onto a pane of glass, and an animator would painstakingly draw the animated scene on the opposite side of the glass. These days, like most things, the process is digital, and instead of panes of glass, the animators draw on what are called Wacom tablets. Instead of pens, they’ll use a stylus whose markings will register on-screen in whatever animation software is being used.
In America, the filmmaker most associated with rotoscoping is without a doubt Ralph Bakshi. He has developed a large cult following for trippy, adult-oriented cartoons like Fritz the Cat, Wizards, and an early, animated version of Lord of the Rings. Other directors who have done rotoscoped films include Richard Linklater whose A Scanner Darkly, as I said, shares a member of the animation crew with Tolltaker: Monique Ligons.
When it comes to animation and live action, do you prefer one over the other?
I can’t say that I do. Each has its appropriate time and place. I’ve always been a fan of animation, and I’m gratified that, for example, the old Warner Bros. cartoons are highly regarded as the meticulous works of art that they are. I’m also happy that the last generation or so has seen the development of animation beyond being just being a gimmick for kids (in some people’s eyes) to becoming a fresh way to explore more grown-up ideas and themes.
Of course, these days, the line between animation and live action is growing ever more indistinct. Many – if not most – big-budget Hollywood movies have some sort of motion-capture going on, where the actors are shot against a green screen, and some kind of computer graphics are inserted into the scene.
What’s your favorite moment in the film?
Not an easy question to answer. You don’t want to tell any of your children that he/she is your favorite. That being said, I do find myself most affected emotionally by the end, after Bobby has his confrontation with the Tolltaker.
Over the years, I’ve become a huge devotee of people like Joseph Campbell and – especially – Carl Jung. Rather late to the party, I know. But still, when I read what they had to say, it just makes sense to me, from a storytelling perspective as well as many others.
I bring this up because I realized, mostly after the film was shot, that there are plenty of archetypal forces at play in Tolltaker. The whole idea of a hero journeying into the underworld to meet his dead father, for example. Odysseus did it, and so did Aeneas. Also, the concept of the underworld, this subterranean place, being a representation of the unconscious, and the appearance of the Tolltaker being what Jung might call “emergent content” filtering up from way down deep in the psyche – I love playing with ideas like that.
What’s next for The Tolltaker?
Well, the goal remains what it’s always been – to get the feature-length film made. As I said, I want to build an audience for it any way I can, so I can show a potential producer that there are people who would go out and see this. It’s available for anyone to watch online, for free, on Vimeo.
What’s next for you?
In a non-Tolltaker sense, you mean? Well, I’ll continue running Reel Stuff Entertainment with my business partner Jesper Olsson, for one thing. We’re based in Center City Philadelphia, and have produced somewhere in the neighborhood of 600-700 web videos since 2006, for clients like the Discovery Channel, the Travel Channel, AOL, Lexis-Nexis and many more.
I also want to continue developing series for the web and television. We have one TV series in the marketplace right now called Europe After Dark, which is about nightlife in Europe. We shot it in places like Ibiza, Amsterdam and Prague, and have a lot of material up on our YouTube channel.
I also have the opportunity to develop a web series about the supernatural for James Franco’s web TV channel Rabbit TV. I’m really looking forward to that.
But it will always be making movies that remains my chief ambition. I have no shortage of ideas. My computer is filled with story treatments that could keep me busy for years to come if I could come up with the resources to get them made.
We’ll just have to see what the future holds.
Special thanks to Steve Janas for the interview.
Tolltaker will screen at the Terror Film Festival in Philadelphia Oct. 18, 2012. It has been nominated for several awards including Best Short Film, Best Director, Best Actor and more.